"Would you mind trading places?" the man standing across the aisle asked me. "You've got the seat next to my wife."
We were in Cancún boarding a Florida-bound flight a few weeks ago. My ticket said "9-C" and his "9-D." We traded places so he could be next to his wife and a friend, who were seated in the center and window seats next to my assigned aisle seat. He was a tall foreigner, probably American, traveling with his Mexican wife and several others, including his daughter, son-in-law and mother-in-law. There were seven in the group, sprinkled in our row and the row in front of us. They talked back and forth, so it was impossible not to overhear that they were headed north to join a cruise in Fort Lauderdale.
I thought no more about them until ten days later when I boarded my return flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cancún. I again was in aisle seat 9-C, and to my surprise as I approached the row, the same man was standing in 9-D, as he had been on the previous flight. The whole group was headed home, in the same seats they'd had on the flight north. The man was looking expectantly down the aisle for the person assigned to 9-C so he could arrange a swap and sit by his wife, just as he'd done before.
This time I beat him to the punch. "Would you like to trade places?" I asked. "I believe I've got the seat next to your wife."
He immediately recognized me. After we chuckled and speculated for a few moments about what the odds must be against this sort of thing happening, we talked a bit about their cruise. When the plane was airborne, I had some time to think.
I realized that what had just occurred really is not terribly odd. These types of coincidences are actually common. It's just that much of the time when people with connections briefly pass by each other, we do not recognize the situation and never know what has happened. What was most odd in this case was, I think, that we recognized each other.
Exemplifying the point, during that same Florida visit I spent time with my cousin Greg, whom until a few months ago I had never met, nor even known existed. Due to a family misunderstanding in the 1950's, his mother, my mom's older sister, lost touch with the family in Baltimore and was never heard from again. Detective work on the part of another cousin, aided by Facebook, brought long-lost cousins together in Florida for the very first time earlier this year.
We discovered that my sister, who moved to Florida three years ago, lives only a fifteen minutes' drive away from Greg and his family. She has shopped routinely at the supermarket nearest her house, where incredibly, our cousin works as a manager. They may have seen each other many times, with no inkling that they were related. And we learned that our two families also had lived only a two-hour drive apart for four years in the early 1970's, complete oblivious to each others' existence.
Even stranger was the fact that my mother and Greg's dad, who is the brother-in-law Mom never knew about, had lived simultaneously at the same nursing home for awhile earlier this year. They had probably seen each other passing in the halls or possibly said hello to each other without knowing the true story. And for that matter, sadly, when visiting his father there Greg may have seen my mother, his aunt, (who since has passed away) without knowing who she was.
And I've seen this sort of thing before. My first college room mate in Alaska graduated from the same Florida high school as I, and had lived seven or eight blocks from our home. We'd never crossed paths only because he was five years older and had left the area soon after graduating.
A couple of years later, I ran into a girl in Fairbanks whom I'd met and talked to once several years before, as we jostled in a jeep along rural roads in Colombia, where we went to do volunteer work.
Once on a beach in Portugal I conversed with a guy who was laying on the sand near me. We discovered to our great surprise that we both had been born in Ketchikan, Alaska. It turned out that I'd known his brother at the University of Alaska and we had common friends. Years later, although we had not kept in touch during the interim, we bumped into each other in a coffee shop in Juneau, Alaska, and picked up where we'd left off in Portugal years before.
Later I quit a photojournalism job in Anchorage and went south for a few months. Returning home aboard the Alaska State Ferry Columbia, the first night out I sat down in the ship's bar next to a guy who I was astounded to learn was moving north to fill the very position I'd left.
These are only a few of the many instances in which I have experienced chance meetings in circumstances that easily might not have occurred. I've run into friends in the oddest far-off places. I've also bumped into the same strangers time and again in different parts of the world. On numerous occasions I've met others who have close connections with my family, friends or places I know very well. Were I an extrovert, I am sure I'd have even more of these stories to tell.
What is interesting to speculate about is how many times we come very close to these meetings, but never quite make the connection. Twenty-five years after our meeting on the Alaska State Ferry, we recently discovered, my photographer friend was on vacation in Mérida, and stayed only a few blocks from my house. We had been out of contact and he didn't know I was here. We missed that opportunity.
Over time, and particularly when we travel, we briefly pass thousands of individuals, and to a fair percentage of these we may have some sort of connection. I have to conclude that these tangents to our lives are all around us and that near-misses happen fairly often.
What this boils down to is that when these meetings occur, the coincidences really aren't coincidences. We are all part of an incredibly complex social web of friends, family, less-intimate contacts, communities and places.
The world is a small place. We really are remarkably close to everyone else.